Fascinating lists!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly (P - R)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: Unless otherwise noted, definitions are courtesy of dictionary.die.net, an Internet dictionary in the public domain.

Paganism--any of various religions other than Christianity or Judaism or Islamism.

Palmistry--telling fortunes by lines on the palm of the hand.

Pandora--in Greek mythology, the first woman; created by Hephaestus on orders from Zeus who presented her to Epimetheus along with a box filled with evils.

Panspermia--The theory that microorganisms or biochemical compounds from outer space are responsible for originating life on Earth and possibly in other parts of the universe where suitable atmospheric conditions exist (American Heritage Dictionary)

Pantheism--belief in multiple Gods.

Papyromancy--divination using paper (the author).

Paradigm shift--“a change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science” (Wikipedia).

Paranormal--seemingly outside normal sensory channels; not in accordance with scientific laws.

Parapsychology--phenomena that appear to contradict physical laws and suggest the possibility of causation by mental processes.

Penile plethysmograph--“that measures changes in blood flow in the penis in response to audio and/or visual stimuli. It is typically used to determine the level of sexual arousal as the subject is exposed to sexually suggestive content, such as photos, movies or audio” (Wikipedia).

Pentagram--a star with 5 points; formed by 5 straight lines between the vertices of a pentagon and enclosing another pentagon.

Perpetual motion machine--a machine which, once it is set in motion, moves continuously thereafter, requiring less energy to operate than it generates; perpetual motion machines are impossible, as they violate the first law of thermodynamics (the author).

Pets, homing of--the ability of pet animals to find their way home over long distances by unknown means (the author).

Phrenology--a now abandoned study of the shape of skull as indicative of the strengths of different faculties.

Philosopher’s stone--a substance that is alleged to be able to transform a base metal, such as lead, into gold (the author).

Physicalism--the doctrine that only physical things exist and that, consequently, all things that exist are physical (the author).

Physiognomy--the human face, believed to be a key to interpreting character (the author).

Piltdown Hoax--a fraud in which the jawbone of an orangutan was represented to belong to and a human skull which had belonged to an undiscovered early form of human being (the author).

Placebo effect--a therapeutic effect without a pharmaceutical or medical basis, simply as a result of the belief that the substance provided will help to alleviate symptoms or remedy physical condition (the author).

Plant perception--the theory or belief that plants are sentient or conscious of their environment and react to stimuli (the author).


Plesiosaur--extinct marine reptile with a small head on a long neck a short tail and four paddle-shaped limbs; of the Jurassic and Cretaceous (dictionary.die.net); some believe that the Loch Ness monster may be a plesiosaur (the author).

Pluto--the Greek god of the underworld.

Poe, Edgar Allan--American author of “tales of the grotesque and the arabesque”; Poe gave the modern horror story its structure and many of its themes (the author).

Poltergeist--a noisy ghost, which is alleged to cause mischief and may be destructive and dangerous (the author).

Polygraph--see “lie detector.”

Possession, demonic or Satanic--the alleged take over and control of a person’s body by Satan or a lesser evil spirit; priests may attempt to evict the spirit by exorcising it (the author).

Post hoc fallacy--see “magical thinking.”

Pragmatic fallacy--“the pragmatic fallacy is committed when one argues that something is true because it works and where ‘works’ means something like “I’m satisfied with it,” “I feel better,” “I find it beneficial, meaningful, or significant,” or “It explains things for me” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Precognition (foretelling the future)--knowledge of an event before it occurs.

Prometheus--in Greek mythology, the Titan who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mankind.

Pseudo science--knowledge that appears to be or is represented as being scientific but does not conform to scientific principles or cannot be demonstrated as true or false by use of the scientific method; see pyramidology (the author).

PSI--”A term used to demarcate processes or causation associated with cognitive or physiological activity that fall outside of conventional scientific boundaries (ESP, for example)” (Wikipedia).

Psychic--pertaining to forces or mental processes outside the possibilities defined by natural or scientific laws; "psychic reader"; "psychical research"; a person apparently sensitive to things beyond the natural range of perception.

Psychic detective--a person who uses alleged osychic abilities to investigate crime (the author).

Psychic surgery--allegedly, the use of psychic means to perform surgical procedures (the author).

Psychoanalysis--a set of techniques for exploring underlying motives and a method of treating various mental disorders; "his physician recommended psychoanalysis."

Psychokinesis (moving objects by mental means)--the power to move something by thinking about it without the application of physical force.

Psychologism--the explanation of physical, social, historical, cultural, religious, or other facts, principles, beliefs, or values through psychological theory; often used derisively, when this approach is considered reductionistic (the author).

Psychology--the science of mental life.

Psychometry--any branch of psychology concerned with psychological measurements; The art of measuring the duration of mental processes, or of determining the time relations of mental phenomena.

Pterodactyl--extinct flying reptile.

Pyramidiocy--the supposedly scientific study of pyramids and their effects; a pseudo science (the author).


No entries.


Rama--avatar of Vishnu; any of three incarnations: Ramachandra or Parashurama or Balarama.

Ramtha--“a 35,000 year-old spirit-warrior who appeared in JZ Knight’s kitchen in Tacoma, Washington, in 1977” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Randi's paranormal challenge--the offer of “a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power,” made by James Randi, a “magician and author of numerous works skeptical of paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific claims” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary)

Reflexology--the massaging of feet to diagnose and cure disease” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary)


Relic, holy--a memento, such as bones, a garment, or a body part, that is believed to have belonged to a holy person or saint; see “Christ, foreskin of” (the author).

Reincarnation--a second or new birth.

Remote viewing--the use of psychic powers (and map coordinates) to discern targets or other items of intelligence at specific locations from which the “viewer” is physically absent (the author).

Repressed memory--”the memory of a traumatic event unconsciously retained in the mind, where it is said to adversely affect conscious thought, desire, and action” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Retrocognition--“a type of clairvoyance involving knowledge of something after its occurrence through psychic means” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Revelation--The act of revealing, disclosing, or discovering to others what was before unknown to them.

Rod--“an insect caught in the act of flying by a video camera” and passed off as “some sort of unknown alien life form” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Roswell (New Mexico), UFO--site of the alleged crash of an extraterrestrial spaceship and the recovery of its injured occupants (the author).

Rumpology--“the art of reading the lines, crevices, dimples, and folds of the buttocks to divine the butt owner's character and get a glimpse of what lies ahead by analyzing what trails behind” (The Skeptic's Dictionary).

Rune--any character from an ancient Germanic alphabet used in Scandinavia from the 3rd century to the Middle Ages; "each rune had its own magical significance."

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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